A Graduation Day Address

Dr Kevin Chalut

29th June, 2013 


First, congratulations to all of the graduands for your great achievement.  Let me introduce myself by saying that I am a stem cell physicist, which is a contradiction of terms and an affront to common sense, but this tension makes me eminently qualified to talk to you on days's theme, which is failure.  Seems ironic to discuss this on a day when you're celebrating a great success, but let me explain.

One of the great things about coming to Cambridge as a young scientist was that I got to start interacting with some of the great scientists of the world. I’ve gotten to know many of these people, often over pints like the old stories. One of the things that has fascinated me has been the disconnect between what I assumed, when I was young, would make someone great, which is prodigious talent, and the reality that most of these great scientists were not, in fact, wunderkinds. Really, I haven’t met one who was a prodigy (small sample size alert), and in fact there have been a number of investigations into the following mystery – why do child prodigies have approximately the same success/failure rate as non-prodigies? You have read the weekly stories in the Daily Mail of the 12 year old who has made a 13-dimensional fractal pretzel and bronzed it with a homemade X-ray gun – pre-ordained to become the next Einstein. But I’m sure I don’t have to tell you that the Daily Mail never does longitudinal studies, we don't know what happened to that kid.

Well, anyway, I’m not here to pick on the Daily Mail or child prodigies; the realisation I’ve come to over these shared pints is the same one you can read in Chicken Soup of the Soul or any self-help book is that prodigious talent rarely has much to do with success. I will digress here to give a little nod to all the other speeches you’ve heard in your life about how putting your shoulder into it – hard work and determination – determines success. You all know this, you worked hard to get here so I won’t bother with that; let’s set it aside as a given. Working hard is essential to success.

What I really wanted to talk about was summed up nicely by Samuel Smiles, the 19th century Scottish author, who once said ““We often discover what will do, by finding out what will not do; and probably he who never made a mistake never made a discovery.” That right there is what all those great scientists have learned – it is what unites them and far transcends the impact of their innate talent, their tragicomic acceptance of the value of falling flat on their faces. I have never heard, nor will I ever hear, of a scientist walking up to a problem for the first time, pondering it like they do in CSI:Miami by looking at it from 5 different frames of reference, formulating a hypothesis, testing it and finding that – by God – they had the right of it.

No. Let me tell you what really happens: they make that guess – we’ll call it a hypothesis to sound more apposite – because the research councils tell them they have to start with that, dust off their equipment, which fails inevitably for the first 5-100 experiments then find they were fantastically wrong about their hypothesis in the first place. If I could have this pulpit for an hour I could tell you some real stories. Now, this is a dirty secret of scientists and it makes the whole endeavour sound hopeless. But here’s the thing in this mess: out of this process quantum mechanics was discovered, transistors were made, billions of pounds created, not out of scientists starting from scratch, but taking that original failed hypothesis, and duct taping it to the next failed hypothesis, attaching it with chicken wire to the next one, with bubble gum and a laser found in the dustbin to the next and the next and the next, and somewhere along the way seeing something weird, which inevitably looks suspiciously like yet another abject failure. Voila, quantum mechanics. That output is noticed by other scientists and generates the next failed hypothesis, wash, rinse, spin and there’s the transistor. 

But hear what I’m saying: this isn’t unique to science. We are not defined by our success but by our failure. You’ve heard of Thomas Edison and his 3000 apocryphal tries at making a light bulb, Abraham Lincoln losing elections left and right, having his carriage break down and riding a donkey to his inauguration and uniting a nation, Stephen King running over his 100-times rejected notes for Carrie in a really moody car until it was salvaged by a telekinetic girl who sold it to a now-defunct magazine, Col. Harlan Sanders finally realizing after failing in business 50 times that people might prefer Kentucky Fried Chicken instead of Kentucky Fried Horse. And of course you probably wouldn’t have an iPhone if Steve Jobs hadn’t been fired from Apple 1985. You all have the internet: you know these stories. Try hard, and when you fail – and fail you will – let yourself mope for a night, get up the next morning, take the failure on board and build your successful life.

Sorry for all the half-true stories about failure a minute ago.  Let me make iy up to you by telling you a true story. It’s my favourite success story of all time, though at the time it looked to many like a waste of talent and an objective failure. The story is about the most important scientist of all time. Now, you’ve all heard this debate before, the greatest scientist conversation inevitably converges on the usual suspects, Einstein, Newton, Maxwell, maybe Pauling. But there’s one name that’s never mentioned, who most scientists I know think of as the man who changed the course of science more than any others, with leaps that could not possibly have been predicted. That scientist is Ludwig Boltzmann, the eminent Austrian physicist.

Boltzmann was a practicing physicist at a time when almost no one in physics believed in atoms, you know the particles we know now make up matter. The prevailing and brutally defended conventional wisdom in the middle of the 19th century was that matter was continuous. But Boltzmann believed that atoms comprised matter, and that, especially given that it was a highly unpopular and actually ridiculed idea, would have been enough to get him into the history books. A great achievement. But he went further; he went in front of hostile crowds and said that not only was matter made up of these atoms, but that you could take those atoms and make pretty much exact predictions about the matter they were comprising, not by knowing anything about the individual behavior of these atoms, but by their bulk statistical behavior, or what they were statistically likely to do. Imagine if I came to you and said that if I rolled dice enough times I could predict the dynamics of the stock market – that is how he must have sounded. Except he was talking to an audience that didn’t believe dice existed. But he was right, and all 20th century science flowed directly out of his courageous decision to stand in the face of much ridicule and rejection and say these things.

The reason I tell you that story is to illustrate that all this has as much to do with courage of your convictions as it does embracing failure, but I believe that ultimately these things are one and the same. In other words, things that look like a hard-earned failure have a funny way of mixing with history and changing the world. So here comes the selfish reason I’ve been telling you all this. It is essential to embrace failure and risk, but our society is becoming increasingly squeamish about it. Our committee-addled world is constantly urging us towards the mean. I can tell you about research councils, and probably others out here can tell you about projects killed off or venture capitalists pulling out on promising small businesses. It’s an obsession with immediate gratification when the long view is always a more appropriate way to evaluate success.

But the current reality doesn’t change the fact that embracing failure is the right way to do it, and it’s always been that way: it is an essential aspect of being human. It’s important on two levels. One obvious way is that we don’t have the capability of imagining the really big ideas without significant previous input. But the second more subtle reason it’s essential is because the person embracing the risk, the smart talented person who is failing despite working hard, will take on board the lessons of the failure and be an order of magnitude more likely to succeed in the next project. This is true of relationships as well as projects – it’s true of everything in life. We are simply not a creature that makes progress through success – we make it through failure. And, selfishly, I hope the next leaders of the world understand that better than the current ones.

So, again congratulations on your success.  I will end by expressing my sincere hope that you all leave here today and go boldly out into the world, and fail spectacularly.